Remote learning not in the plans for USD 489 — yet

Rafael Garcia
Hays Unified School District 489 is tentatively planning on bringing students back for in-person learning after Thanksgiving,  contingent on COVID-19 rates in schools remaining low and staff shortages from quarantines not worsening.

Hays Unified School District 489 will remain in face-to-face learning for the time being, although superintendent Ron Wilson is still cautioning parents to be ready for a move to remote learning at any time, if COVID-19 rates and staffing shortages force the district’s hand.

At a Hays Board of Education meeting Monday evening, Wilson told the board that the district has been able to maintain a handle on COVID-19. Out of approximately 3,800 students and staff in the district, only 19 currently have COVID-19, which Wilson said was proof that the district’s COVID-19 mitigation measures are working.

The district’s plan for switching to remote learning calls for the district to begin considering moving individual buildings to remote learning when more than 1.5% of the school’s population tests positive for COVID-19, and to actually make such a move once the school hits 2%.

So far, the district hasn’t come close to hitting either of those numbers, although lower percentage thresholds are in place for individual classrooms. The high school itself has gone over 1%, and Wilson said the district had sent notifications to parents to prepare for a potential move to remote learning, should the situation require it.

“We’ve determined that the best place for our students to be is in schools, and it’s probably the safest,” Wilson said. “The information we’ve gathered from many weeks is that among our students and staff, we’re not seeing any spread inside our schools. Now we have positive cases, but most of those cases are from household contacts or people have done things outside of the school.”

Still, a significant problem for the district is the number of student and staff quarantines, particularly as they affect schools’ ability to continue holding classes. Substitute teacher shortages, like those across the state, are hampering the district’s ability to safely hold classes, and Wilson said USD 489 is “right on the line” for making a move to more restrictive learning, although he did not specify how many teachers are in quarantine or what that line might be.

District administrators continue to meet with Ellis County’s COVID-19 advisory committee, looking at various factors influencing school and community operations.

The Ellis County Health Department on Monday evening reported 83 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend, bringing the county’s seven-day average of daily cases to 40. Since March, the county has reported 2,078 positive cases of COVID-19.

Wilson said that while the school district’s operation status isn’t necessarily influenced by community COVID-19 trends, the trends could lead to county COVID-19 restrictions that could likewise shut down in-person operations.

Wilson compared the decision to move to remote learning to calling a snow day in years past, and while he recognized that other districts across the state have moved to remote learning already for their own reasons, Hays USD 489 would wait to make a decision for itself. At the same time, he recognized that smaller districts in the area could be waiting for USD 489 to take the lead in making a move to remote learning.

USD 489 students will return to in-person learning after Thanksgiving break Wilson said.

“If we can kids into school and keep everything safe and keep everyone healthy, we’re going to try to do that,” Wilson said. “If the numbers come back and they start to go crazy and we can’t staff (schools) and if we’re above the 1.5 and 2% (thresholds), then yeah, we will not be onsite.”

Wilson said it’s a decision he and other district officials aren’t taking lightly, knowing full well the significance of disrupting in-person learning and forcing parents to find alternative child care.

“It’s not like the virus is going to take a Thanksgiving holiday, so we will be looking at numbers throughout the week and seeing what that looks like Friday and Saturday,” said assistant superintendent Shanna Dinkel. “We do have some staff that are isolated now and will come back, but if we see numbers, that may cause us to make that decision.”

District sports may be on hold after Tuesday, when the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s board of directors will meet to vote on a proposal that would delay the start of interscholastic competition to after Jan. 15, given the skyrocketing trends of COVID-19 transmission across the state. Schools would be able to continue to practice in the meantime, however.